It was one of the most epic basketball games in the 50-year history of the Marriott Center.
No. 23 BYU upset No. 2 Gonzaga 91-78 on Senior Night last Feb. 22 in front of a national television audience and a sellout crowd of 18,987. After the signature victory, Cougars fans stormed the court to celebrate.
That night, BYU snapped the Zags’ 19-game winning streak and ended their 39-game West Coast Conference winning streak.
Gonzaga hasn’t lost a game since.
For coach Mark Pope, it was a night he’ll never forget.
“I can remember every moment of the whole deal. I think the most meaningful thing for me, especially with how the season ended up, was that we got to share that journey with those young men,” he said last Friday. “I’m so grateful for that moment for those guys and for all us, that we all got to share it together. It wasn’t just a big win, it was everything that led up to it and the environment in the gym, it was the time of the season. It was what those guys had been fighting for the last couple of years. It was all those things coming together in a moment that was really spectacular. A lot of us, people who love BYU, will remember that moment forever. By definition, you can’t get those moments all the time. Sometimes you don’t get them in a whole career. But we got to share it together and it was super special.”
Almost a year later, the Cougars host No. 1 Gonzaga Monday (9 p.m. MST, ESPN).
It’s not Senior Night and there won’t be fans in the stands, other than the teams’ friends and family members. As it turns out, last year’s game was the last time that fans have been allowed to attend games at the Marriott Center, due to the pandemic.
This showdown was moved up — it was originally scheduled to be the regular-season finale for both teams — from Feb. 27. But when both teams had games canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the WCC, the matchup was expedited.
Pope had been hoping that this game would be played later in the season, when originally scheduled, in the hope that perhaps by then some fans would be allowed to attend and also in the hope that his team would be more developed.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country, you feel blessed,” he said. “We’re excited to play them yesterday, tomorrow, three weeks from now, whenever. They give a gift to our league (being ranked No. 1).” — BYU coach Mark Pope
Still, Pope is happy for this challenge.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country, you feel blessed,” he said. “We’re excited to play them yesterday, tomorrow, three weeks from now, whenever. They give a gift to our league (being ranked No. 1).”
What was the players’ reaction to playing Gonzaga (18-0, 9-0) sooner than expected?
“We were all hyped. We were really excited. We want to play the best competition,” said guard Alex Barcello. “We have a high belief in ourselves and our potential and the ceiling we can get to. We just want to go test that and have challenges — that’s playing the best teams that we can.”
BYU (15-4, 6-2) knows pulling another monumental upset over the Zags will be difficult.
Gonzaga boasts the top two scorers in the league with Corey Kispert (19.9 ppg) and Drew Timme (18.8 ppg). It also has one of the best freshmen in the country in Jalen Suggs. But more than anything, the Bulldogs play as a team.
“They’re such elite passers and have such a good sense for space. They have length and they can pick you apart offensively,” Pope said. “They’re elite passers in transition. Their length and physicality on the defensive end and their athleticism and ability to pass the ball and their IQ in terms of cutting sets them apart from every team in the country.”
BYU fell 86-69 at Gonzaga in Spokane on Jan. 7 in a game that was also hastily moved up due to COVID-19 issues.
“Gonzaga is No. 1 in the country for a reason. They’ve got a lot of talented guys. We know that and we felt that during that game,” Barcello said. “There’s a lot of things on the defensive side of the ball that we needed to clean up. But it’s also our mentality — not losing focus on what we’re coming in here to do in this game. If we can execute our offense, and know their personnel, it’s going to be a really good game.”
Barcello said he doesn’t dwell on that upset over Gonzaga last season. He’s focused on this year’s team and what it can accomplish.
“I’m trying to focus on what we have ahead of us. Definitely, last year it was a phenomenal game,” he said. “We were very excited to have won it. It was a great accomplishment.”
Pope said he won’t use last year’s epic victory as motivation in the pre-game locker room speech Monday. Or will he?
“Maybe I should,” he said.